There's a memorable exchange in the divinely trashy B-movie The Devil's Advocate in which Al Pacino--well-cast as the head of a Manhattan-based legal empire who also happens to be Satan--is interviewing Keanu Reeves, who is never well-cast, but in this case manages to only mildly embarrass himself as a smooth-talking, Florida defense attorney:
Reeves: Are you offering me a job?
Pacino: I'm thinking about it. You have the talent. I knew that before you got here. It's the other thing I wonder about.
Reeves: What thing is that?
Pacino: Pressure. Changes everything. Some people, you squeeze them, they focus. Some people fold. Can you summon your talent at will? Can you deliver on deadline? Can you sleep at night?
Right about now, members of the McCain camp are surely asking why the hell they didn't have a similar conversation with Sarah Palin before signing her up. The governor obviously possesses raw political talent: She delivers a mean speech. She comes across as likeable, down-to-earth, spunky, expressive. She can convey confidence and certainty even when she has no idea what she's talking about, and she can shiv an opponent while flashing the sort of dazzling smile that has allowed pretty women to get away with murder for millennia.
But on occasion, when you squeeze her in just the right way, Palin doesn't just fold; she falls apart, babbling nonsensical non-sentences that prompt nasty quips about whether the former Pentecostal is speaking in tongues. At this point, even if Palin is sleeping well at night, it's unlikely anyone else on Team McCain can say the same.
The problem--for both campaigns--is that it's tough to predict exactly when Palin will crumble, and so it's difficult to know how to prepare for any given event. Her brain freezes don’t seem tied directly to the profile of a particular appearance or even to the confrontation of tough questions: Palin's high-stakes speech at the Republican convention was a home run, and her one-on-one with ABC's Charlie Gibson, while underwhelming, was adequate. But then Katie Couric--sweet, smiley, soft-haired, soft-spoken, heavily mascaraed Katie--gently nudged Palin into a sinkhole of such incoherence that even some deep-red conservatives abandoned their new savior. The McCain folks hit the panic button, attacking the media desperately and dispatching top aides to nurse the candidate back to fighting form. And now the entire political world perches on the edge of its seat, wondering if tonight's tango with Joe Biden will discredit Palin so completely that she’ll take the now-codependent John McCain down with her.
Don't bet on it. The smart money says Palin will emerge with, at most, superficial wounds. In part, this is about the expectations game: Post-Katie, the bar has been set so low for Palin that, unless she faints or vomits on air, her team will rush to declare a victory--not just for her, but for all of Joe Six-Pack America. But it is also about Palin's particular skill set, the audience she's playing to, and the nature of the political media.
First, let's consider the expectations game as it specifically infects the Fourth Estate. Assuming Palin survives the entire 90 minutes, aiding the McCain camp's victory spin will be the media's bipolar, whipsaw approach to covering public figures. Whenever a candidate gives a notably good or bad performance in a debate, on the stump, or at some other random gathering, the media rushes to declare it a defining, game-changing moment. We then immediately and completely recalibrate our expectations based on the assumption that said candidate will never recover/stumble again. Sarah Palin gave a great convention speech: She is a grassroots rock star destined to save the McCain campaign! Sarah Palin gave a terrible interview: She is a clueless loser destined to sink the McCain campaign! Or forget Palin. How many times did the media prematurely pronounce a candidate toast this cycle? (I’m sure the Hillary and McCain campaigns kept a rough count.) You'd think people who cover politics for a living would be less inclined toward such hysteria than civilians. Instead, we’re so much worse. It's not about whom journalists favor or disfavor. It's about our professional obsession with watershed moments and clean story lines. Going into the debate, Palin's stock with the media could hardly be lower, and so she is primed to benefit from the soft bigotry of low expectations.
Also aiding Palin will be the burgeoning Gwen Ifill Scandal. It seems that conservatives discovered only this week that moderator Ifill, herself an African-American, has a book due out on inauguration day about the impact of the Obama candidacy on race in American politics. Title: The Age of Obama. News of the book--along with the McCain campaign's insistence that it had no knowledge of it--earned the top spot on yesterday’s Drudge Report. And just like that--poof--conservatives have their scapegoat: Any disappointing moments in Palin's debate performance can now be laid at the feet of a moderator who was out to get her.
There is also the possibility that Ifill will involuntarily let all this hubbub influence her own performance--causing her to treat Palin either overly gently to avoid charges of bias or overly tough as a way to prove that she can't be cowed. (And even if she doesn't, some segment of the electorate will nonetheless scream loudly that she did.) A few weeks back, when every criticism of Palin was being rebuffed with charges of "sexism," I suggested to my husband that Ifill was the only journalist who could handle the gender card-obsessed Palin team in a debate. I feared male moderators in this post-Hillary landscape would be so concerned about appearing sexist that they would wind up behaving awkwardly, either pulling too many punches or coming across as grossly avuncular and patronizing. (And even if they didn't, the McCain campaign would nonetheless scream loudly that they had.) Ifill could just be Ifill. Alas, now Ifill can't just be Ifill. She has become Gwen Ifill: African-American Author of a Book Exploring the Brave New Era In Politics Ushered in By African-American Presidential Candidate Barack Obama. She now carries her own baggage, and while I'm hoping that she can rise above it and avoid becoming a major part of the debate analysis, I'm not exactly optimistic.
As for Palin's performance itself, my guess is that it is likely to come closer to her 2006 gubernatorial debates than her 2008 media sit-downs. Sure, the stakes are higher and the issues less familiar--but both in past debates and in some of her non-Katie media exchanges, Palin has displayed a solid ability to tap dance around questions she can't or doesn't want to answer. Neither does she typically flinch when answering a sensitive inquiry about, say, what she would do if one of her daughters wound up pregnant as the result of being raped. (Yes, she was really asked that. And she patiently smiled when explaining that she would "choose life.") She also thrives when there is another candidate or candidates to play off of--often by employing a kind of motherly scolding to suggest that her opponents are being naughty and childish. (See Politico's Alexander Burns for more on this.) And while Biden isn't the stuffed shirt that some of Palin's '06 competitors were, he does look--and often sounds--every inch the political-establishment type that Palin has made a career of dismembering with her cutting remarks and cutesy nose scrunching. No one expects Palin to know more than Biden about, well, anything. She need only hold her own in a verbal jousting match with one of the Senate's legendary gabbers.
So, my advice to Governor Palin is to stop letting your fussy handlers freak you out. You're going to do just fine. You won't be on that stage alone. Biden is bound to open himself up for at least a couple of good scoldings. The media is poised to write your comeback story. Your base is going to love you no matter what. And if things do happen to go badly, you can always claim that Ifill wanted to take you out as a way to sell more books. All things considered, there's really no way you can lose. Unless this Ifill book dust-up compels the debate commission to replace her with Katie Couric tomorrow night. Then you're pretty much screwed.
Michelle Cottle is a senior editor of The New Republic.